4 jan 10 | The Chicago Tribune

The Burj Dubai: New world's tallest building shows that nothing succeeds like excess

by Blair Kamin

If ever a skyscraper was burdened with great expectations, it is the Burj Dubai, the colossal, half-mile-high tower designed by Chicago architects that opens here on Monday. This high-rise isn't simply meant to shatter height records. It is supposed to be a national icon, a symbol for a madly exuberant, now debt-ridden, city-state that mixes the manufactured spectacle of Las Vegas with the helter-skelter growth of Houston.

In the wrong hands, the 160-story, mixed-use skyscraper - the world's tallest building and the world's tallest free-standing structure, whose height is roughly double that of Donald Trump's Chicago tower - could have been a monstrosity, an extra-extra-large version of the architectural cartoons that blight the skyline here. Yet, as designed by the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and its former design partner, Adrian Smith, the Burj Dubai represents a great leap forward in height and, especially for Dubai, in design quality.

It is a luminous, light-catching skyscraper that looks like a skyscraper - ridiculously tall, but exquisitely sculpted, elegantly detailed and unapologetically exultant. Nothing so perfectly summarizes the bigger-is-better outlook of Dubai's ruler, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, and the tower's developer, the state-backed Emaar Properties.

In contrast to Dubai's preposterous collection of architectural cartoons - here, a big-bellied tower that suggests an oversize perfume bottle; there, a paper-thin skyscraper that looks like someone sliced a giant hole in its top with a pair of scissors - the Burj Dubai offers God-is-in-the-details articulation along with its dazzling shape. Fittingly for this waterfront tourist mecca, the shape recalls a giant sandcastle in the sky.

Writing from thousands of miles away, some critics have taken note of the tower's spiraling shape and branded the skyscraper an act of hubris - a modern-day version of the biblical Tower of Babel. Yet, to be here is to realize that the genius of the Burj Dubai is that it does not stand aloof from the zany, Xanadu-in-the-desert character of Dubai, but channels that energy into a work of architecture that is, if not profound or especially adventurous, then at least serious and almost noble.

Rising improbably from what was desert just six years ago and housing an Armani hotel, about 1,000 condominiums, small offices for jetting-setting magnates and an observatory for the masses, the $1.5 billion Burj Dubai is by no means immune from this emirate's maddening "build now, plan later" mentality. It is far easier to reach by car than by foot, and even the roads leading to it are a maze. A nearby rail stop on Dubai's new transit line will open Monday, but that is about as green, or energy-saving, as this project gets. In addition, little effort has been made to have the skyscraper culminate long urban vistas, as the Eiffel Tower does so magnificently in Paris.

Even so, the Burj Dubai succeeds as an Eiffel Tower that people live in - not a pure symbol, but a working icon that anchors an emerging city within a city called (what else?) Downtown Burj Dubai a few miles from the alluring azure waters of the Persian Gulf. Compared with other parts of Dubai, where high-rises are crammed so closely that people in one apartment building can practically reach out the window and shake hands with their neighbors, the district has an appealing openness, a quality accentuated by a shallow man-made lake built to one side of the giant tower. As if the spectacle of the world's tallest building was not enough, the lake flaunts a crowd-pleasing, Las Vegas-style fountain that shoots dancing jets of water 500 feet into the air (accompanied, naturally, by music). Yet it also sets off the Burj Dubai, allowing the tower to be glimpsed from head to toe.

And what a view it is, at both close range and from afar - a feat that architect Smith, who left SOM in 2006 to start his own firm, and his chief collaborator, SOM's chief structural engineer Bill Baker, accomplished through a classic Chicago synthesis of architecture and engineering.

The tower is remarkably tall and remarkably thin because of its innovative structural system: a six-sided core of concrete buttressed by massive concrete walls that support the three wings of the Y-shaped skyscraper. These cost-efficient, wind-resisting bones are sheathed in a sophisticated skin of double-layered glass and aluminum that strongly resembles the exterior of the SOM-designed Trump International Hotel & Tower in Chicago. At the 156th floor, the concrete is replaced by an inner structure of steel, which carries the glass-sheathed, mostly unoccupied portion of the skyscraper - all 600-plus feet of it - to the summit, which reportedly rises 2,684 feet above the desert floor. (Emaar Properties is expected to reveal the exact height Monday.)

A spire that tall sounds silly, the ultimate folly, yet somehow it works. From a distance, the Burj Dubai looks like a Middle Eastern version of Oz - not oppressive, but beckoning; inevitably, not freakishly, tall. Smith kept reworking the top to get the proportions right and his tweaking paid off. Here, in contrast to the disappointing flagpole-like spire at Chicago's Trump Tower, the skyscraper and its subtly spiraling setbacks mount rhythmically to a thrilling climax. Yet, as at Trump, the silvery Burj Dubai reflects the sky beautifully - only more so because the exterior, its curving contours subtly evoking the pointed arches of Islamic architecture, has so many gem-like facets.

Smith is known for the philosophy of contextualism, which preaches the virtues of adapting a building to its surroundings, so it is no surprise that the Burj Dubai meets the ground equally well--even if it is perhaps a little chunky from up close. The foot-like extensions of its Y-shaped floors step down humanely to a surrounding plaza. Three lozenge-shaped entrance pavilions, with precisely-detailed, cable-supported glass walls that enclose an air pocket and sunshades, lead to the respective lobbies for the tower's offices, hotel and condos. In the bargain, the projecting pavilions will prevent wind downdrafts from knocking pedestrians off their feet.

Along with lush gardens that extend the tower's helical geometry into the landscape, these features transform the gargantuan Burj Dubai into a gentle giant - not unlike New York's Empire State Building, whose setback profile has long exemplified how a tall building should meet the ground. Unlike so many towers here, the Burj Dubai seems rooted in its site, not plopped onto it. It simultaneously stands out and looks like it belongs.

The skyscraper's interior remained incomplete as of Sunday, and, therefore, was impossible to fully evaluate, yet a brief look at one of the tower's residential floors suggested that SOM's design will likely succeed in function as well as form. The Y-shaped floor plan creates narrow apartment depths that keep interiors close to prized views of the Persian Gulf, the Dubai skyline and the desert. Widely-spaced columns, as opposed to the narrowly-clustered piers of Chicago's Aon Center, smartly accentuate those vistas. Why build so high if you can't see to the end of the Earth?

Under the leadership of Nada Andric, SOM's interiors department has wisely chosen restrained, elegant finishes to provide relief from Dubai's visual cacophony. In the residential floor's elevator lobby, bands of Brazilian rosewood on the walls create a warm, domestic feel - as close to "home sweet home" as one can reasonably expect in a half-mile-high skyscraper. Within the apartments are the usual top-drawer brands (Sub Zero refrigerators, Miele range hoods).

Kitchens are open to living spaces and views, American style.
How many people will actually be living and working in the Burj Dubai? That, along with the tower's exact height, remains a mystery. An Emaar spokeswoman declined to answer whether Dubai's real estate bust and plummeting property values have led some buyers to walk away from their deals. The first residents are scheduled to move in to the Burj Dubai next month. The 124th floor observatory (the world's highest lookout point, naturally) opens Tuesday.

The prospect of a partly-empty skyscraper invariably opens the Burj Dubai to charges of overbuilding. Surprise: It's happened before. As the history of the Empire State Building reveals - when it opened in 1931, it had so few tenants that it was known as the "Empty State Building" - today's white elephant is often tomorrow's beloved landmark. Like the Empire State, the Burj Dubai reflects the exuberance and overreaching ambition of its age. Thanks to its Chicago-based architects and engineers, it possesses the quality and artistry that will enable it to take its place not only in the record books but also among the pantheon of the world's iconic skyscrapers.

Nothing succeeds, it seems to defiantly declare, like excess.

POSTSCRIPT: In a surprise, the Burj Dubai on Monday was renamed the Burj Khalifa in honor of the Abu Dhabi leader who bailed out Dubai after its debt crisis last year. The tower's height was announced at 828 meters, or 2,717 feet.